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FCC Officials Outline Plans for $100 Million in Funding for Rural Broadband Experiments

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WASHINGTON, July 29, 2014 – In a webinar on Thursday, July 17, the Fiber to the Home Council hosted a webinar with Federal Communications Commission officials on a $100 million fund for expanding broadband capabilities to rural communities. FCC officials encouraged companies to apply for the funds, but also cautioning them of the heavy commitment.

The FCC voted at its July 11 monthly meeting to authorize the experiments, and applicants have until Oct. 14 to bid for funding. The $100 million will be split into three categories, said Jonathan Chambers, Chief of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning & Policy Analysis. About $75 million will be used for testing networks that service plans at 25 Megabit per second downloads and 5 Mbps uploads. Another $15 million will go to testing delivery service at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps upload speeds in high cost areas. The remaining $10 million will go to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps upload service in remote rural areas.

The experiment will allow the FCC to test its reverse auction mechanism for Phase II of the Connect America Fund, and to better see where interest for high-speed broadband is expressed and by whom.

As a rule, Chambers said the FCC will not discriminate between types of services: “In terms of the expression of interest we received, we got ranges of projects in the hundreds of thousands and hundreds of millions of dollars. We wanted to ensure we get some diversity in the projects.”

The key is cost effectiveness, he added.

“We’re just going to select the most cost-effective project first, and then the second-most cost effective, and keep selecting until we’ve used up the $75 million, and the [follow the] same process for the $15 [and $10] million,” Chambers said. “As long as people meet the performance criteria…there’s no beauty contest. There’s no, ‘we value one type of service more than another.’ It’s going to be run as a reverse auction. Low bid wins.”

Limits will be placed on how much funding certain projects can bid for so that “several winners” are chosen, Chambers said. For example, projects in the high performance bracket are limited to $20 million. A percentage ranking system will determine which bids are most cost effective. Once entities are selected, support will be granted annually over a ten year period and the grunt work of building out or upgrading networks should ensue quickly.

“People should not be reluctant because they have a smaller project or a different type of project at all in terms of filing and participating in the program,” FTTH Council’s Counsel Tom Cohen said. “Don’t say, ‘they’re only going to do two projects.’”

Only price capped carriers in areas eligible for Phase II of the Connect America Fund can participate in the experiments, added Carol Mattey, Deputy Bureau Chief of the FCC. Funds will be distributed on a census block-by-block basis, added Chambers, to ensure “the fairest comparative measure.”

To make the process easier, companies don’t have to be eligible telecommunications carriers at the time of entering their bid, Mattey said. If they’re announced as winners in the public notice, however, then they must seek a designation as such an entity.

But while “the FCC is making it relatively easy to submit an application,” Cohen told applicants: “you better have your homework and due diligence work in your back pocket. Once you’re selected, you undertake a real obligation to do this. You don’t want to be in default. There are accountability measures the commission has to have so you need to keep that in mind.”

To secure the FCC’s dispersed fundings, companies need to obtain a letter of credit from eligible banks, as was done with the Mobility Fund, Mattey said. If performance failures are observed, the FCC “will draw on the letter of credit and recoup the funding.”

The build-out requirements once a bid has won are largely the same as those for Phase II of Connect America, Mattey added. Each company has three years to build out to 85 percent of locations, and to the rest by five years. Companies that already plans set in motion can opt for an accelerated disbursement of funding if they can commit upfront to meeting deployment of broadband to 25 percent of their area within 15 months. In exchange, 30 percent of funding will be delivered upfront.

In conjunction with the experiment, Chambers concluded by saying that the FCC is also undergoing a proceeding on potentially raising the definition of high-speed broadband. Currently, the FCC defines it at 4 Mbps. But it is considering the prospect of raising it to 10 Mbps, and perhaps even beyond that, he said.

 

Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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